hile the creme caramel at Trattoria Da Cesare al Casaletto may be the best in Rome (so good that an Arab princess once offered to fly Leonardo, the owner, to her palace to teach her chef how to make it, but he couldn’t go), the one I enjoy most is at our local pizzeria, Remo. It’s not so much about the creme caramel itself (which might be packet mix), but more about the whys and wherefores. It’s most likely Friday night and the end of a long week, we don’t have to cook, the noise of the place feels celebratory and the seats are so tight that kids can’t wriggle around. We’ve already eaten fried salt cod and rice supplì with mozzarella hearts, a pizza each with a side order of puntarelle (bitter leaf salad with a rowdy, anchovy-and-garlic dressing), drunk at least a litre of red wine and now find ourselves in need of pudding.
While some people don’t like to share puddings, or scorn those who have just a spoonful, I appreciate both – you get to taste a bit of everything, or satisfy that need for a full stop of sweetness. The options at Remo are half a dozen: fruit (pineapple frills in winter, watermelon fans in summer), tubs of ice-cream, jam tarts or three things that wobble: crema catalana, panna cotta and creme caramel. All three are slightly grainy, slightly too firm and, to be honest, only slightly good. They are never inverted in the middle of the plate, but sometimes they are exactly what you need.
Other times, I do want something better than “slightly good”. I wish I could remember who described the best panna cotta as “silky and untroubled”, so I could thank them, because the best creme caramel should have the same qualities. Or, as my old neighbour Vera would have it, “When sinking your spoon into the cream, it should feel like kicking your shoes off or sinking back into a comfortable chair.”
I know learning to make something with an Italian nonna is a tired cliche, but I did learn to make creme caramel with one. Vera, who was elegant and witty, also taught me Italian and to do anti-ageing neck exercises. I have slightly adapted her recipe over the years, incorporating bits from Delia Smith, who has helpful instructions such as “cook the caramel until it is three shades darker than golden syrup”, but I don’t bake it for as long as her or Vera, because I like a bit more wobble.
Prep 10 min, plus chilling
Cook 40 min
Serves 4 (6 if you make a big single mould)
- 100g caster sugar
- 2 tbsp hot water
- 150ml whole milk
- 275ml single cream
- Vanilla essence or 1 vanilla pod
- 4 large eggs
- 30g soft brown sugar
Heat the oven to 150C (130 fan)/gas 2 and put a one and a half pint dish or four ramekins on a baking tray.
To make the caramel, heat the caster sugar and two tablespoons of water in a heavy-based pan over a medium-low heat, until the sugar dissolves. Leave to bubble, stirring, for a minute, or until you have a liquid that, as Delia suggests, is three shades darker than golden syrup. Off the heat, carefully add two tablespoons of hot water – it may splutter. Stir until you have a smooth liquid once more, then pour the caramel into the mould/ramekins, coating the sides.
To make the custard, pour the milk and cream into a pan. If you are using a vanilla pod, spilt it down the middle, scrape out the seeds and add to the milk/cream mixture along with the empty pod. Leave to infuse for 30 minutes.
In a bowl, beat the eggs, soft brown sugar and vanilla essence, if using. Heat the milk mixture again, until hot (but not boiling), remove the vanilla pod, if using, and pour into the egg/sugar mixture. Whisk until everything is combined, then remove from the heat.